James Hewitt, 1st Viscount Lifford (28 April 1712 – 28 April 1789) was an Irish lawyer and judge. He served as Lord Chancellor of Ireland from 1767 to 1789.
Hewitt was the son of a Coventry draper, William Hewitt (1683–1747), who was born in Rockcliffe, Cumberland, the son of James Hewitt and Mary Urwin. His mother was Hannah Lewis. His brother, William Hewitt (1719–1781), was governor of the West Indies. In a class-conscious age, his background was something of a handicap, and his "small-town" manners were the subject of unkind comment throughout his life.
Hewitt first worked as an attorney's clerk. By 1742, he had become a barrister. Rising quickly through the legal profession, his career climaxed when he was made Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1767, a post he held until his death in 1789. He was raised to the Peerage of Ireland as Baron Lifford, of Lifford in the County of Donegal, in 1768, and was further honoured when he was made Viscount Lifford in 1781, also in the Irish peerage.
He was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Coventry for 1761 to 1766.
Lifford made his reputation as Lord Chancellor of Ireland: he had until then had the reputation of being a "dull, heavy lawyer", an uninspiring though "safe" MP, and a man of mediocre intelligence who was painfully conscious of his rather humble origins. Even the Government which chose him was rather doubtful that he had the necessary strength of character to be an effective Chancellor, while the English Bench reacted to his appointment with general ridicule.
They were quickly proved wrong: witihin two years of his arrival in Ireland Lifford was earning the highest praises as a judge. As his colleague John Hely-Hutchinson (not a man normally given to speaking well of others) wrote to a friend-
"He does his business very ably and expeditiously and to the general satisfaction of suitors and practicers in this country, where he is much respected and a very popular character and is, in his public and private deportment, a most worthy, honest and amiable man".
His efficiency in doing business was such that it was said that virtually all legal business in his time was diverted to Chancery (the Court of Exchequer (Ireland), which had a competing equity jurisdiction, was described earlier in the eighteenth century as being in a chronic state of "confusion and disorder").
Barristers who practiced in his court, like John Philpot Curran, fondly recalled "the great Lord Lifford" after his death as a model for other judges to follow.
Lord Lifford married firstly Mary Rhys Williams, daughter of the Rev. Rhys Williams, in c. 1749, by whom he had four sons. She died in 1765. His second wife was Ambrosia Bayley, daughter of the Rev. Charles Bayley, whom he married in 1766: her youth and beauty aroused much admiration in Ireland By Ambrosia he had one further son and two daughters. He was succeeded by his son, James Hewitt, 2nd Viscount Lifford (1750–1830).